Chicago aldermen are racing against the clock to pass a new ward map

Ward map graphic
Chicago aldermen are racing to complete the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the city's political ward boundaries before a December deadline. Mary Hall, Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Ward map graphic
Chicago aldermen are racing to complete the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the city's political ward boundaries before a December deadline. Mary Hall, Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Chicago aldermen are racing against the clock to pass a new ward map

While many Chicagoans gather for Thanksgiving with family and friends, Chicago City Council members are staring down the possibility of a holiday spent together – at City Hall.

They could be huddled behind closed doors in the so-called “map room” as a deadline looms and compromise seems far off in the once-in-a-decade process to redraw the city’s ward map.

The City Council’s Rules Committee is tasked with making new political boundaries to account for population shifts after each decennial census, ensuring each ward is roughly equal in size, compact, contiguous – and complies with the Voting Rights Act.

Council members have until Dec. 1 to pass a map that reflects new census data that show the city is 31.4% white, 29.8% Latino, 28.7% Black and 6.9% Asian.

“Potentially, we could be [meeting on Thanksgiving]” said Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th Ward, chair the council’s Black Caucus, who warned “don’t be surprised if we’re meeting” the day before the deadline to pass a map.

Aldermen have been working with cartographers and attorneys in private sessions at City Hall since August, and must pass a map by the end of the month otherwise voters themselves could decide between competing maps through a referendum vote.

Here’s where things stand with just two weeks and two days until the deadline.

Black and Latino Caucuses at a standstill

The caucuses representing Latino and Black voters appear to be at an impasse when it comes to negotiating the shape of political power in Chicago over the next ten years.

The standoff matters because both caucuses represent demographics that are protected under federal law as racial groups that have historically been discriminated against when it comes to voting rights. Both caucuses receive city funds for attorneys and cartographers to help craft maps that ensure equal representation for Latino and Black Chicagoans.

The Latino Caucus kicked the public conversation around the remap process into gear when it released a map last month that would shrink the number of majority-Black wards by two, and increase majority-Latino wards by the same number. Currently, there are 13 majority-Latino and 18 majority-Black wards in the city.

“We’ve been very open and transparent in trying to communicate with our members of the City Council that there’s an increase in the Latino population that warrants fair representation,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas, chair of the Latino Caucus, citing a 5% increase in the city’s Latino population in the past decade.

But the head of the Black Caucus immediately called the Latino Caucus map a non-starter. Ervin told WBEZ last week he’d rather let voters choose new boundaries in a referendum than support a map that does not maintain the current 18, majority-Black wards.

“I believe the people of Chicago will support us in the maintenance of the wards, and the plan that is presented via the Rules Committee,” Ervin said.

Chicago’s Black population has dropped by nearly 10% in the past decade. Still, Ervin has said any map that shrinks the number of majority-Black wards could lead to “a costly, litigious process.”

While Ervin says his caucus has sent individual ward maps for each of its members to the Rules Committee, he says unlike the Latino Caucus, the Black Caucus does not intend to publish a detailed citywide map. Instead, he implied that a forthcoming map from the Rules Committee will include the 18 majority-Black wards he’s pushing for and that’s the map the caucus will support.

Harris, who heads the Rules Committee, did not respond to requests for comment.

The fight for an Asian-majority ward

For the first time ever, Chicago could see a majority-Asian ward on the South Side.

Chicago’s Asian population has grown 31% in the past ten years, according to 2020 census data, from about 145,000 to 190,000. The greater Chinatown area saw Asian population gains in neighborhoods like Bridgeport, McKinley Park and Brighton Park.

Currently, the Chinatown community is split between three wards: the 11th, the 12th and 25th. Advocates say the lack of consolidation of power has made it difficult for Asian Americans — particularly immigrants — to advocate for issues like language access, pandemic assistance and a local high school for Chinatown residents.

In the past few weeks, both Latino Caucus and Black Caucus leaders have said they’re committed to passing a map that consolidates the city’s Chinatown community into one ward. The first iteration of the Latino Caucus’s map included only an Asian-influenced ward, with 49% of the population being Asian American. After advocates criticized the map, and Black Caucus leaders vowed to include a majority-Asian ward on the South Side, Latino Caucus leaders said they would redraw the Chinatown boundaries to create the 50%-plus-one majority.

The Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, a group that has been advocating for a ward that consolidates its residents for decades, was scheduled to lead a rally in Chinatown Square on Saturday.

“Part of the purpose of the rally is to have a visible show of unity and solidarity, and part of it is to educate the community some more about the need … for consolidating our voice and to gather some more support,” said CBCAC Executive Director Grace Chan McKibben told WBEZ’s Reset.

She added that the creation of a majority-Asian ward would be “historic.”

“Chinatown in Chicago has often been touted as the only growing Chinatown in North America, so a [new majority-Asian] ward … would give hope, for not only our city but I think for the country,” she said.

An effort from organizers for a “People’s Map”

Another map on the table — dubbed the “People’s Map” by the group of residents that created it — has yet to be formally introduced to the City Council for consideration. But its organizers say they’re preparing for a media blitz in the next few weeks.

“We’ll have some digital billboards and we’re hoping to continue to build the momentum so that the People’s Map can be a real thing for the people in the city of Chicago,” said Chaundra Van Dyk, with the group CHANGE Illinois that’s backing the map.

The map would create 14 majority-Latino wards, 15 majority-Black wards and one majority-Asian ward. But the group faces an uphill battle, as they’re pushing 10 aldermen to support the map in order to force a referendum to let voters decide.

Aldermen could be hesitant to support the push, as it would effectively seize their power to create the wards in which they’ll seek re-election in 2023 But Van Dyk hinted that their map could soon formally be introduced to the council, which would require the endorsement of just one alderman.

“We’re working on a press conference,” Van Dyk said. “And we are trying to secure multiple [aldermen] who will be willing to present the map. We want the support of 10, and to go public with that. But ultimately, if it’s one, if it’s two, we’ll take that.”

Claims of “insufficient” public input

The city has held two public hearings so far, with one more planned for Monday, just weeks ahead of the deadline to pass a map. Both meetings so far have started with criticism from residents who say the public input process is inadequate. All told, just eight residents have participated.

“I would like to express disappointment in the lack of opportunity for community members across Chicago to share their input in this process,” said Grace Pai, Executive Director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, who spoke at the first public hearing.

“Three hearings is extremely insufficient given that the new map will impact all of our communities for the next 10 years,” she said.

Both hearings last week lasted less than an hour, with the bulk of each spent on presentations from city officials outlining the basic rules of the remap process.

Ald. Michelle Harris, who chairs the council’s Rules Committee and is leading the remap process for the first time, assured residents that their elected officials are hard at work – albeit behind closed doors.

“We have been on this process now for a minute,” she said. “I know that for some it may seem like we just started weeks ago, but it’s hard to do a mapping process also on top of our budget process, so I apologize to the public who feels like that we aren’t listening and we aren’t hearing. We are listening, we are hearing your responses.”

The last of the three public hearings is 3 p.m. Monday, though Harris said the Rules Committee could hold future hearings where residents will get a chance to debate the substance of actual map drafts.

Mariah Woelfel covers city government for WBEZ. You can follow her @mariahwoelfel. WBEZ’s Esther Yoon-Ji Kang contributed.